At $16,667 per cylinder, the new Aston Martin four-door sedan trades space for elegance—and trumps the Panamera in the process
Up Front Aston Martin would like you to forget a couple of things. First, please erase the 1970s vintage Lagonda from your mental hard drive. After all, it was a separate brand and not mechanically related to its sports cars. Guinness may have been involved. They'll take the mulligan. Next, they'd like you to forget the association you might make with "sedan" and "pragmatism." For their first real sedan, Aston Martin has wisely left practicality to pretense and made the new $199,950 Rapide as stunning as any sportscar it has ever built. It's a four-door for sure—as long as a Mercedes-Benz S-Class—but because it's also lower to the ground than a Ford Mustang, it's not a particularly roomy one. "Four-door coupe" is how we'd describe it, but even that doesn't convey how low-slung and distinctive the Rapide is. What it gives up in usability, it pays back in sex appeal. There's simply no other sedan as stunning in profile as the Rapide. Jaguar XJ? Far better this time around, but no. Maserati Quattroporte? More tailored, perhaps, but nowhere near as gorgeous. Porsche Panamera? Not even close. The Aston is pure, concept-car-like—it owes much to modesty. There's not much badging nor much jewelry to clutter its flanks. The glass sits flush with the body sides. The flip-out door handles—on loan from the closely related DB9 coupe—barely break the taut skin of the aluminum panels. It's so sleek, in darker colors, you might even miss the doors' cutlines. Don't miss them, because when you do swing them open, the Rapide has another flamboyant trick up its sleeve. The "swan wing" doors hinge forward at 12 degrees for an effect almost as stunning as an open-for-business gullwing Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG. Once it takes them under its wings, the Rapide coddles at least two of its passengers with exquisite details. It's altogether more conventional behind the wheel, where the Rapide's brilliant-white gauges wear metallic rings, and the surrounding dash dons olive ash wood panels. A crystal-tipped key slots into the center of the dash, and round buttons start the car and engage the transmission. It's all visually pleasing, right down to the dozens of rectangular metal bars that work the secondary controls. They look smashing—which is exactly what you'll be doing into other cars if you try to figure them out on the fly. The fussy navigation system hides its LCD screen under a dash flap and buries functionality in a rotary wheel. It takes a lot of patience to learn. It doesn't take much to get comfortable in the front seats. The seats power forward or back, leaving plenty of knee room and even head room. The steering wheel telescopes for a perfect fit. The seats themselves are Recaro frames and feel snug and supportive, not binding as in a more tightly wound sportscar. My very first miles spent in the Rapide happened in the back seat—and it wasn't pretty. For the quick shuttle ride from airport to hotel, I folded my right leg into the tiny footwell, braced myself against the wall of leather that almost divides the rear seats, and bent down for a tuck-and-roll that left me with just inches of space in front of my eyes, no knee room to speak of, and contact between my head and the headliner. The rear-seat entertainment system's seatback screens helped—they hypnotized me into forgetting my confinement. It's safe to say adults under five and a half feet might find it cozy enough, but anyone larger will want a taxi instead. The rear seats are intended for occasional use, Aston explains—which is why they fold forward to give the Rapide a fairly large 26.5-cubic-foot cargo space. Behind the Wheel It's a showstopper, but the Aston Rapide faces off against a brace of luxury sedans with higher top speeds and quicker 0-60 mph times—not to mention much lower sticker prices. Still, few offer the luscious balance of a big V-12 engine. The Rapide's 12-cylinder whirs silently until you provoke it. Then it barks and crackles with all the energy implied by its numbers—470 horsepower, 443 pound-feet of torque, peak output at 6000 rpm. Hooked into the rear wheels through a push-button, six-speed automatic with paddle shifter, and the Rapide soars past 60 mph in about 5.2 seconds. A 500-horsepower Porsche Panamera drops the Rapide by almost two full seconds, but the Rapide's 188-mph top speed isn't far off the mark. Smooth in its action, the Rapide's six-speed, paddle-shifted automatic gets a little more authoritative when Sport mode is engaged. That mode does wonders for the Aston's almost languid mood: It'll eat up miles with finessed, seamless shifts and a well-damped ride until Sport mode zaps it to life, quickens its shifts, tightens its adaptive suspension and boosts throttle response. BMW (BMWG) has eight-speed automatics, and the Panamera has a beautifully executed dual-clutch seven-speed. Either one would be a welcome upgrade. Grip and balance are what the Rapide does best. It doesn't have the exotic, all-wheel-drive traction of some sedans, but its near-ideal weight distribution and low center of mass make those things redundant. As they do from some angles, the rear doors just disappear at speed. With a long, 117-inch wheelbase and massive 20-inch tires, it can't be called nimble, but the Rapide doesn't leave much of the DB9's agility on the table. Buy It or Bag It? The 2010 Aston Martin Rapide's a swell sedan for sinfully rich couples with small children or small friends, or a solitary existence. It has the kind of aesthetic unity that the same urban elites find in Apple products. And for sure, it sacrifices spec-sheet bona fides for design harmony. At $200,000, the Rapide comes with the usual dose of luxury and entertainment. Leather and walnut trim are standard. So are power front seats with memory and heating; Bluetooth; satellite radio; and USB and iPod connectivity. The must-have accessory on the options list is the 1000-watt Bang & Olufsen BeoSound system, with extraordinarily crisp treble delivered by tweeters that rise up from the dash like mushrooms. If numbers are more important, you'll have to consider the Porsche Panamera, the Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG, and possibly a Ferrari 612 Scaglietti. The Panamera has true four-adult capacity, and a roofline that suffers for it. The S65 AMG is the closest V-12 competitor in price and speed, but its styling is far more hit or miss. The Scaglietti? Spot-on for looks and rear-seat room, though it has only two doors.